A breathtaking prayer

No question about it, the Mass celebrated by Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika, dedicating his diocese’s new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, was breathtaking in every sense, beginning with the piety of all in attendance.

The apostolic nuncio, representing Pope Francis, was there, along with five cardinals, 21 bishops and a multitude of visitors. The music was magnificent, and even the weather cooperated. It was a day of brilliant sunshine, without one cloud in the sky.

I always shall remember attending the dedication, revering every aspect of it, but I especially was impressed by the vespers on the evening preceding the dedication, because it was there I was led to think about the nature of all Christian prayer, and to what happens, or what should happen, when we pray.

Shortly before the vespers, the first ceremony of worship to occur in the new cathedral, Father David Carter, a priest of the Knoxville diocese, ordained in 2005 after studying in Rome, now rector of Chattanooga’s great old Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, went to the pulpit to explain the ancient ritual of vespers.

I am sure that Father Carter was asked to say what he said about vespers because, while Catholics have been praying vespers for over a dozen centuries, customs have changed as time has passed. Vespers has become a prayer chiefly for priests and religious, in monasteries or convents, or in private.

Few people in the pews today regularly attend, or indeed have seen, a formal, public ceremony of vespers, and laity filled the cathedral that night.

First, he said, vespers is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, in which Catholics pray to God throughout the day, binding themselves to God at every moment in time.

In solemn settings, such as in Knoxville, it is sung, as we muster our best to praise God. Vespers includes an opening hymn, which is of human composition, and possibly a homily, as was the case in Knoxville, where Philadelphia’s emeritus archbishop, Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, provided a moving meditation about the Lord’s love for us, symbolized by the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It has a series of petitions, similar to those at Mass.

Even so, Father Carter told us, vespers centers upon the Scriptures, given to us to guide and to uplift us. Nothing more perfectly proclaims the glory of God, he said, and reveals the reality of God, and our lives with God, now and in eternity, better than God’s own words.

Every vespers presents three psalms, drawn from those 150 Old Testament pieces, all in the style of Hebrew poetry, and long, long ago set to music. Christians always have used the psalms to declare the greatness of God and to implore God’s mercy and strength. Indeed, the Lord Jesus used the psalms in prayer.

Ritual for formal vespers has a special way of praying the psalms, again a way that originated well over a millennium past. The congregation is divided into two groups. One group says, or sings, a verse, while the other side listens. Then the process is reversed.

Finally, all sing the Magnificat, the Blessed Mother’s glorious testament of her faith and trust in God, and pray the Lord’s Prayer, both taken from the Gospels. What better words could be the final prayer?

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Father Carter told us that vespers teaches us a lesson about prayer overall. In prayer, we listen to God, speak to God and praise God from our hearts, in God’s own perfect words. Why? As Cardinal Rigali said, we need the Lord, and Jesus with an everlasting love fulfills our greatest needs.

The Church gives us Jesus and brings us to Jesus. So the Knoxville diocese built its wonderful cathedral.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.